See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43.19)
It’s time for full disclosure. I get the Lenten wilderness metaphor. I understand its scriptural origins, both in the account of Israel’s journey and Christ’s temptation in the desert. As I hope posts here confirm, I’m captivated by the wealth of insight to be found in Lent’s wilderness. And I embrace it fully. But there’s also a part of me that resists it—which, come to think of it, may be why I’m fascinated by it. The imagery and sensations associated with the desert often put me off. They’re sterile, harsh, arduous, and intimidating, which is nothing like what I perceive following Christ to be. Indeed, outside Lent’s regimen of self-denial, very little seems to reflect how Jesus characterizes His way. For example, in Matthew 11.28-30, He says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In John 15.11, He says He’s taught us to live “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” I wrestle with this, because Lent’s pilgrimage is studded with moments of weariness and anxiety. The desert isn’t a happy place.
But can it be a happy place? I’m finding it can—or more surprising, it is. In times past, I’ve embarked on fasts and seasons of consecration as purgative periods to cast off old thoughts and habits impeding my spiritual growth. I’ve regarded the desert as a prime spot for taking personal inventory and envisioned unhealthy passions shriveling up in the hot sun, leaving a trail of bleached carcasses behind to mark my path. Most definitely, shedding unwanted aspects of our personalities is a noble, necessary Lenten pursuit. Yet asceticism’s appeal evaporates quickly for people like me, whose drive and vision thrive in green pastures of creativity. We’re poorly suited for wilderness experiences because they don’t give us much to work with. We reach the first barren stretch and say, “What am I supposed to do now?” Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, part of us resents being led to such inhospitable places. Our first impulse is to get out as soon as possible, hoping the landscape will improve soon. If we make a run for it, though, we frustrate God’s purpose for bringing us to desolate places. We never see what He wants to show us. And it is a beautiful, joyous thing to behold.
On the Lookout for the New
Permitting the desert to strip away old ideas and compulsions—to purify us—only realizes half of our journey’s purpose and potential. There’s another side to Lent that many of us never see: the opportunity for exposure to something new, to watch God’s transformative power at work in us. And here’s the thing. Unless we walk this wilderness on the lookout for the new, it can happen right in front of us without our noticing it. Listen to what He says to Israel, which has been blinded to His power by years of trudging through desolation: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43.19)
Israel can’t see it because it’s not looking for anything new. It’s fallen into a rut of same-old, same-old, passively riding what Joni Mitchell exquisitely called “the carousel of time.” It builds, its enemies destroy, it rebuilds, and its enemies return. While this up-and-down, up-and-down motion persists, it sails through a yearly cycle of observances—fasts and feasts, sowing and reaping, repentance and rejoicing. Since it all looks and feels the same, Israel runs on autopilot. Its itinerary basically boils down to “get through this and things will get better.” In times of deprivation, whether politically imposed or religiously mandated, Israel insists on looking down the road instead of seeing what’s underway. It’s so accustomed to repetitive history and ritual the idea God may be altering the landscape never crosses its mind.
How the Desert Works
The desert is unique among climatic regions in its propensity for sudden change. Its terrain can literally shift before one’s eyes. Towering, impassable dunes can vanish with one blast of wind. Forbidding obstacles can give way to new passages. A deluge below the horizon can unleash torrents of water that find their way into dry riverbeds. Streams can appear without notice and within hours, their currents and banks can burst with new life. Overnight, the most barren expanse can bloom into a breathtaking oasis. Although desert travelers never know when or where this may happen, they live in expectancy it will. They keep their senses attuned to every possibility so they’ll perceive changes the instant they arrive. What’s more, they dismiss running from desolation in search of happier places because, given how the desert works, when they reach the place they’re looking for, they may find there’s no “there” there.
Surely God calls us into the wilderness to subject us to its harshness, steering us through sterile cauldrons that strip away our impurities. But in exchange for what the desert exacts from us, we should also expect to find new life—to see splendor unlike any we’ve ever encountered. The desert springs with lovely, unpredictable surprises. Expanses of deprivation and anxiety instantly turn into havens of refreshment and rest. The wilderness is where God does new things. May He grant us wisdom and vision to perceive them.
In an instant, the desert can spring with fresh life. Lent’s wilderness journey is as much about encountering the new as shedding the old.
(Tomorrow: Made for Us)